- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 15, 2011

NEW YORK (AP) — The top charge has been dropped against two men accused of plotting to blow up synagogues in New York, authorities said Wednesday.

Ahmed Ferhani and Mohamed Mamdouh pleaded not guilty Wednesday to charges including criminal possession of a weapon as a terror crime.

But a grand jury evidently rejected the initial top charge against them, conspiracy as a terror crime, which carried the potential for life in prison. The top charge now carries up to 32 years if they’re convicted.

“The charges have dropped a significant level in this case,” Mr. Mamdouh’s lawyer, Aaron Mysliwiec, said in court.

Another defense lawyer called the case “entrapment.” The Manhattan district attorney contends the men’s intentions amounted to an act of terrorism. Prosecutors declined to discuss the grand jury process.

“This is a political case, brought by political people, for their own political purposes,” Elizabeth Fink, a lawyer for Mr. Ferhani, said outside court, noting that the district attorney, police commissioner and mayor had trumpeted the arrests at a press conference. “They were inflaming; they were trying to draw a wedge between citizens, in this case.”

Mr. Ferhani, who is unemployed, moved to the United States in 1995 from war-torn Algeria with his parents and claimed asylum, authorities said. He was granted permanent resident status but is facing deportation.

Mr. Mamdouh, who is of Moroccan descent, immigrated with his family in 1999, officials said. His parents are now local business owners, a previous lawyer said.

The defendants lived blocks away from each other in Queens.

“You will see that this case is bogus. … It’s total entrapment,” Ms. Fink said, adding that Mr. Ferhani’s intentions were “absolutely not” terrorism.

“The truth here is that our client has a significant psychological problem,” she said.

His lawyers didn’t specify the mental illness from which they said he suffered, but they said it was lifelong.

“A picture emerges from today’s indictment that describes how the defendants plotted to bomb synagogues in Manhattan in an effort to contribute to what they referred to as ‘the cause,’” District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. said in a statement. “Their desire to commit violent jihad against Jewish Americans is not only an act of terrorism, but also a hate crime. Any threats to the safety of New Yorkers will be addressed swiftly and aggressively by this office and our partners in the NYPD.”

The defendants remain held without bail and are due back in court Sept. 20. They appeared in orange jail jumpsuits and said nothing except “not guilty” during the brief hearing.

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